Dougherty: No 'wow factor,' but tight end Austin Hooper 'pretty good at everything'
GREEN BAY - The three most expensive free agents general manager Brian Gutekunst splurged on last March had the same profile.
They’d hit the market after finishing their rookie contracts and skewed young: Adrian Amos was 25 when he signed; Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were 26.
All three also had good injury histories: Preston Smith had never missed a game his first four seasons, Amos had missed only four and Za’Darius Smith six.
If you look for a similar free-agent profile at the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs this year, one name jumps out: Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper.
ESPN.com reported last week that the Packers plan to pursue Hooper in free agency and if they do, it will make a lot of sense.
The Packers have a huge need at tight end, which they acknowledged by cutting Jimmy Graham on Thursday.
Also, while he’ll surely cost a free-agency premium, Hooper is only 25 and has missed only five games in his four NFL seasons. He fits the age and injury profile that worked so well for Gutekunst last year.
Hooper is the best tight end on the market and signing him will be extra expensive, just as the first-day signings of the Smiths and Amos were last year. Just how expensive? SpoTrac estimates Hooper will average about $10 million, which is what Graham was making as the highest-paid tight end in the league. Don’t be surprised, though, if Hooper makes more like $11 million or $12 million.
That’s a lot for a guy who hasn’t been a great player. There are several tight ends who are clearly better, starting with Kansas City’s Travis Kelce ($9.4 million average), San Francisco’s George Kittle (on his rookie contract) and Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz ($8.5 million average). Oakland’s Darren Waller ($7.45 million average) had a breakout 90-catch season last year, too.
Still, Hooper ranks No. 4 in the league in receptions (146) by a tight end over the past two seasons, even if his yards per catch are low (9.9 yards). He ranks behind Ertz (204), Kelce (200) and Kittle (173).
Unlike Graham, Hooper also is a decent blocker, which is crucial for an outside zone run game such as Matt LaFleur’s.
“When you watch (Hooper’s) tape there’s no real wow factor, like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s really good at this or really good at that,’” said a tight ends coach in the league. “He’s just pretty good at everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s pass protection, run blocking, route running, yards after catch, he’s pretty good at everything, but there’s nothing where you go my god, he’s just super. Which is fine. He’ll be productive. With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers he’d catch his 80 balls a year and six touchdowns.”
If Gutekunst doesn’t have the budget and cap room to have a free-agent offseason like last year, the GM still has plenty of money to pursue at least one expensive free agent, and maybe two.
In 2019, he went into free agency with about $38 million in cap space. This year, he has about $27 million, according to SpoTrac, and will need at least some of that room to sign defensive lineman Kenny Clark to a lucrative contract extension in the summer or fall.
Still, with good contract structuring, the GM can be active. It’s worth remembering that even though Za’Darius Smith’s contract averages $16.5 million, his cap number in his first season was only $7.25 million. Gutekunst has wiggle room.
There’s another reason Hooper makes a lot of sense: The Packers need to upgrade their pass-catching corps, and in the free-agent market receivers are historically more over-priced than tight ends.
For instance, the receiver free-agent market last year was weak, yet the top three contracts (Tyrell Williams, Golden Tate and Adam Humphries) averaged $11.1 million and included $45 million in full guarantees. A comparably weak tight ends class (Jared Cook, Tyler Croft and C.J. Uzomah) yielded only a $6.6 million average and included $20.5 million guaranteed.
Same for 2018. Receivers Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson averaged $15 million and had $82 million guaranteed. Tight ends Graham, Trey Burton and Austin Seferian-Jenkins averaged $8 million and had $33 million guaranteed.
And in 2017, receivers Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon averaged $10.3 million and were guaranteed $47 million. Tight ends Martellus Bennett, Cook and LaDarius Green averaged $5.6 million and were guaranteed $19 million combined.
One high-ranking executive for an NFL team said if he needed a receiver and a tight end in free agency but was willing to pay a lot for only one, he’d go tight end.
“Hooper will cost,” the executive said in a text. “(Indianapolis tight end Eric) Ebron will want a lot but maybe his market will not be (as strong) as his ask. Maybe (you’ll) be able to get him (on the cheap).”
Said a scout for an NFC team: “Sign Hooper and draft a receiver.”
Ebron (26) is probably the next most attractive tight end on the market, now that the Los Angeles Chargers have used their franchise tag on Hunter Henry. Henry’s injury history — he missed the 2018 season because of a torn ACL and four games last year with a tibial plateau fracture — would've made him a higher-risk signing anyway.
But Ebron comes with his own red flags. The former top-10 draft pick looked like a big bust after four NFL seasons, then had a big year in 2018 (66 receptions, 13 touchdowns) with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. But without Luck last year he slipped to only 31 catches in 11 games and had in-season ankle surgery against the Colts’ recommendation.
“Ebron’s been good, but I still don’t trust him,” the second scout said.
Gutekunst’s priority this offseason has to be giving Rodgers better weapons in the passing game. In free agency the GM might be able to find an OK receiver at a palatable price. But if he’s going to swing bigger, he’ll get his best bang for the buck with Hooper at tight end.